Compliments to the chef
A customer called Chef Jon St. Peter on Wednesday morning to make a reservation for lunch at Chez Lena, the Western Colorado Community College culinary arts program restaurant. However, a special request: no dairy, no meat, no eggs.
Now, it can be done, obviously — there’s rich variety in vegan cuisine. But he had to admit, “It’s hard to cook without dairy or protein.”
So, Wednesday lunchtime found him standing at a preparation counter in the Chez Lena kitchen, thinking. His students bustled around him, pausing occasionally to watch what he was going to do. He’d thought risotto would be nice, and cooked some with thinly sliced garlic. But what else?
He lit a portable gas burner — “I don’t want to be off to the side over a stove and not available to my students,” he explained — and set a skillet on it to heat. Then, a little olive oil and some sliced mushrooms, which sautéed nicely. A flaming dash of white wine, a handful of sliced asparagus and a splash of asparagus stock, a scoop of sun-dried tomatoes. What else, what else? A pinch of salt, a productive stir.
“I’m just creating it as I go,” he said, and his students watched.
Perhaps it’s that willingness to take a risk, to think on his feet, sturdy on his foundation of training and technique, that recently earned him the title Chef of the Year from the American Culinary Federation Colorado Chefs Association. Competing against three other finalists at the Sept. 19 Sysco Food Show in Denver, he created a menu that strove to define “Colorado cuisine” and included wine-pickled high country pears, a chili relleno and sweet corn custard.
Of his menu, he wrote, “The first course represents Colorado chefs pushing boundaries while challenging the traditional definitions of menu items. The second pays homage to one of the greatest menu items of the southwest region, the chili relleno — this relleno delivers all the unctuous satisfaction promised, plus the comfort of braised Colorado beef. The third dukes it out ‘ear to ear’ with one of the most iconic ingredients found in Colorado.”
The challenge went right to the heart of his passion for food: using fresh, local, sustainable products, preparing them in creative ways and, ultimately, making something delicious.
“I think when you’re cooking, you have to ask, what is your ultimate goal?” he said. “If it’s to make something tasty, to feed your family, to create something satisfying, then that gives you a lot more freedom.”
St. Peter, 34, an assistant technical professor in the culinary arts program
at WCCC, has been interested in cooking for as long as he can remember. His mother, Diane, has a photo of him as a baby, tooling around the kitchen in a wheeled walker and playing with pots and pans.
Growing up the second oldest of six children in Hope Valley, R.I., he quickly became comfortable with the idea that if he was hungry, he should go make a snack. One of the first delicious things he remembers making is an egg sandwich, and it’s still a favorite. He also spent a lot of time in the kitchen watching his mother make beef and barley soup or Manhattan clam chowder and learning from her.
“She’s got a good palette of flavors, a lot of really good instincts,” he said. “She built really deep flavors and that’s something I learned from her.”
As a sophomore in high school, he enrolled in a culinary arts program, where he learned the foundational skills of cooking: how to use a knife, how to make stock, how to keep a clean kitchen, how to sautee chicken — techniques every chef should have. He also got a part-time job at the Wood River Inn, where he spent hours peeling shrimp and slicing garlic and chopping onions.
“I never minded doing something over and over,” he said. “I don’t know how many onions I’ve chopped in my life — too many to count, probably. Thomas Keller in his book talked about the comfort of repeating a task, and I agree with that.
“I think in some ways (cooking is) very similar to a martial art — the discipline and practice, repeating a movement over and over, that sort of skill to train your body to do these things. It requires a really high level of dexterity and it can be a very complex puzzle. I tell my students that cooking is a thinking game.”
Before his junior year in high school, he and his family moved to Delta, and he graduated from Delta High School in 1996. Afterward ... no plans. He didn’t know what to do with his life, but then his mom saw an ad in the Delta County Independent for the Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute in Keystone. It was perfect, a 6,000-hour working apprenticeship program with one day per week in the classroom and the rest of the training done in restaurant kitchens by chefs.
“It really was an old-world apprenticeship in an environment designed to produce high-caliber chefs,” he recalled.
Plus, he added, training in restaurant kitchens gave him the ability to work under pressure and to adapt quickly in a way that classroom training wouldn’t. The classroom training, though, was a vital part of his education, and he came full-circle 11 years ago when he became a chef instructor at WCCC. As a certified executive chef and certified culinary educator through the American Culinary Federation, he brought experience and passion to the culinary arts program.
“He’s got a good grasp on what it takes to be successful in this business — perseverance and the ability to think on your feet,” said Wayne Smith, an assistant technical professor in the culinary arts program at WCCC and president of the American Culinary Federation Colorado Chefs Association.
This term St. Peter is teaching Advanced Line Cooking and Introduction to Hot Foods, as well as managing Chez Lena, so competing for Chef of the Year was one more thing in a very busy schedule. He asked his student Kacey Abbott, 19, to be his sous chef in the competition, “but we only had time to practice once before we went to Denver,” she said.
As they left for Denver, they still hadn’t ironed out all the technical glitches in their menu. A basil-mint puree that was part of the dessert course kept oxidizing and turning black, so on their way to the competition they were consulting with another culinary arts student on the phone. She advised blanching the basil for 30 seconds, enough time to break down the enzymes, and it worked! The puree was a beautiful green for the competition.
The culinary arts program’s competition team, of which Abbott is a member, also accompanied St. Peter to Denver. He said he wanted them to not only get a feel for competition, but also come away with a sense that winning isn’t the most important aspect of competing; challenging oneself, pushing boundaries and creating something new and delicious is.
So, the win was very nice, he said, but he was most proud of being able to represent WCCC: “I truly believe we have the potential to be the premiere culinary arts program in the region,” he said.
“I want my students to come out of this program being curious,” he explained. “If I can encourage them to be curious and ask evaluative questions and inspire them to be professional in their technique and habits in whatever scenario they’re in, I think we will have given them a good education.”
In food, he said, curiosity is key. With a strong foundation of technique, chefs free themselves to try new things. In fact, he said, “I probably use a recipe now five times out of 100.”
At home, he does most of the cooking. His wife, Kassia, rightly asks why she would cook when he can make a dish in half the time it would take her, and it turns out twice as delicious. Their sons, Corban, 7, and Benni, 6, are interested in what goes on in the kitchen, St. Peter said, and in helping out with the garden and chickens.
And even though they’re young, the boys probably watch their father and his exploratory, discovery-based approach to food. St. Peter’s students, too, can watch a curious mind at work.
So, when a customer calls and requests a vegan lunch, it’s no big deal to whip up a delicious risotto.
Note: Chez Lena, the Western Colorado Community College culinary arts restaurant, will be closed Oct. 15–29 as students put together a new menu.